Diesa de Tyronmen struggled angrily against the shackles, tipping her head back to take a breath. She had complained time and again to her captors that the neck shackle was too small--a complaint that had fallen on deaf ears.
Oh well, Diesa thought grimly, it doesn't matter now.
In a few short minutes she would go on the auction block and whoever bought her would have to provide their own shackles, iron being as expensive as it was.
She closed her eyes against the glare of the winter sun and shivered in her thin tunic. The voices of the market crowd were loud in her throbbing head.
A head that wouldn't be throbbing, she reminded herself sourly, if you could only learn to keep your mouth shut.
Eight days of her constant complaining had at last driven the slave keeper to blows. The evidence, however, was well concealed under her thick, waist-length black hair. It wouldn't do to sell damaged goods.
"Up!" barked a heavy-set man, yanking her to her feet. He prodded her along past other slaves and up the three steps to the auction platform. Once there, he stripped off her tunic in one swift movement, leaving her nude on the platform. A gasp of surprise and embarrassment escaped her, but there was no escape, no place to go. She licked dry lips as her gaze traveled swiftly over those men seated at the buying table. She sized them up swiftly. A Kalaithen--he would be looking for boys. A human, big, ugly and old--he might be a problem. A brothel madam--she would want someone better endowed. A dwarf--he was already turning his eyes away in disinterest. A Diad--he was leering, obviously interested. Another human, younger, more pleasing to look at, but with a cold grin that sent shivers up Diesa's spine. And last, an elf--exquisitely beautiful, with fair skin, hair the color of summer sunshine and cold, gray eyes that appraised her thoughtfully.
The auctioneer brought his gavel down hard, startling Diesa, and the bidding began. It started low and Diesa cringed. Not only was it a blow to her ego, but it meant she could be forced to stand naked for a longer time, shivering in the cold air.
"Come now," the auctioneer whined. "Surely we can do better than fifty yemmocks! She's a fine young specimen with only seventeen years behind her, worthy of any brothel."
"She'd have to grow some knobbies first!" a man's cry came.
Laughter erupted and Diesa flamed red. She knew her breasts were small. But that's the way her body was--small, tight and wiry. Still, it did not give him the right to draw attention to it. She lifted her chin defiantly, suddenly determined not to let the men see how terrified she was, how close to tears, to defeat. But the auctioneer's next words nearly broke her willpower.
"She's part dryad," the auctioneer admitted, "but the other half is all Crayoven. Crayoven! Think of it!"
It was a bold lie, meant to raise the bids. Crayoven! The word stuck in Diesa's mind like poison. To even suggest she could be part of such a sexually deviant race of people brought the taste of bile to the back of her throat. She shuddered and forced herself to look at the buyers.
"One hundred yemmocks!" the madam offered, her heavily painted eyes squinting at Diesa. "Based on trial."
"One hundred fifty, no trial," the young human countered.
"One hundred eighty." The elf's offer was not loud, though it rang clearly.
Oh Gods, Diesa thought. Not the elf. Please, not the elf. She knew his kind. Her clan had told her all about them. How they cared for none but themselves, how they considered humans beneath them, how they could claim a heart with their words, a soul with their touch. But not mine! she thought wildly. She would lose her soul to no one, certainly not someone who was not even human. Nor would she be owned by anyone, least of all an arrogant, narcissistic elf. Her gaze settled on him and their eyes met. The corners of his perfectly formed lips turned up just slightly, although his gray eyes remained cold and aloof. Diesa could not look away, and felt her heart hammering against her ribs. He was beautiful! Painfully beautiful. You'll make me love you and give me nothing in return. Nothing but aching emptiness.
::And you know this?:: His voice came clearly in her mind, startling her.
The Diad bid two hundred.
Quickly, Diesa brought up her shields to keep the elf's magic out.
The elf's smile grew, as if intrigued. "Two fifty," he called.
No, she cried. Not him. Please, let someone else...
"Two seventy five!" The young, attractive human was back in the bidding.
::You'd rather go to him?:: The elf broke through Diesa's shields easily.
Diesa's gaze shifted momentarily to the human. It wasn't hard to imagine what he wanted with her. Anger snuffed out her fear. That was all men ever wanted. To use a woman for their own pleasure, to humiliate and torment them. The elf would be no better, but he would control her mind as well as her body. She glared at him. ::At least his pain would only be physical. That I could live with.::
"Three hundred," the elf said.
Diesa stared in disbelief. ::I hate you! You know that!::
::Why?:: His question was curious, as the human once more raised the bid.
::You come into my mind without asking. That's the way with your kind. With all men! They take what does not belong to them and then discard it like trash. Get out of my head!:: Diesa strained with all of her psychic power to reform her shields.
The elf's smile grew. "Four hundred."
::No!:: Diesa shrieked mentally. ::You'll take my mind first, then my heart! I can't stand it!:: Her gaze went to the young human who had been countering the elf's bids. Please, she begged, willing her thoughts to him. Please.
The young man shifted uncomfortably, his face wrinkling into a hard frown. "Four twenty five," he called hesitantly, as if the words had been forced from him.
The elf smiled fully, his gray eyes sparkling with surprise. "Six hundred!"
A gasp went up from the crowd, followed by a heavy, disbelieving silence. The auctioneer regained his senses quickly, slammed the gavel down upon the bidding block and jabbed a finger at the elf. "Sold!" he cried.
"No." The word escaped her in a whisper, and she sagged in defeat as the guard dragged her from the platform. She was barely aware of the elf heading her way, but as he drew up beside her, she stiffened, then watched the gold coins fall from his long, graceful fingers into the dirty, outstretched palm of her captor. Each gold coin sealed her fate.
The collar shackle suddenly became too tight to bear and she clawed at it with desperate fingers, her breath caught in a throat gone dry. The elf motioned to the metal, a grimace of distaste on his face. "Remove that at once," he ordered.
The gaoler twisted the key in the lock, and the shackle fell away, landing at Diesa's bare feet with a heavy thud. Her gaze traveled with it, and even though she knew it to be gone, her throat remained tight and closed. Tears fogged her vision and she rapidly blinked them away. The shackles she now wore were of a different kind, invisible to the eye, yet more powerful than those of any metal. She was a slave. She jumped as the elf shoved her tunic into her hands.
"Dress," he said firmly and when she had, he caught at her chin, lifting her face upward. He stared at her for a long moment, his gaze burning into her mind. She could feel him there, taking up residence, gathering information, but she had no strength left to shut him out. He would take what he wanted when he wanted it. She trembled and he released her.
"Come." He turned and strode off through the throngs of people. Diesa followed numbly, mind whirling. Several times she lost sight of him and, once, she even entertained notions of simply slipping away into the market crowds. The idea was disposed of quickly as the elf sent a quick stab of pain through her with his magic. It was almost as if he were her parent, hurrying her along with a sharp pat to the backside. She hurried to catch up, anger burning in her gut. She hated being owned, but more than that, she hated being treated as a child or a....a pet. Well, he would soon learn--she would be no one's pet. She found the elf near the back wall of an inn, a young boy beside him.
She appraised the youth. He was as fair as she was dark, of a slight, though muscular build, and not much older than she. His blue eyes traveled over her in a quick appraisal.
"This is Kittellan," the elf said. "He is my swordsman. Kittellan, this is Diesa. She will prepare our meals, see to our clothing and satisfy your human needs."
Diesa gasped, embarrassment flushing her face. Kittellan looked just as startled, and, to Deisa's way of thinking, actually seemed appalled at the very thought. Furious, she whirled on the elf, ready to protest, but the look in his eyes stopped her. He continued, "I have secured a room. Follow me." He turned and strode away, never once looking back at his charges. They followed obediently.
It was blessedly warm inside the inn, and Diesa suddenly realized how cold she'd been. But then, eight days with nothing between her and the winter winds except the light tunic she wore had hardened her to the cold. It had become like everything else on that grim trek from her ravaged homeland--a test of endurance and her dryad powers.
The elf led them to a room. Inside, a large bathtub full of steaming water stood against one wall. A fire roared in the hearth, and two sets of clean clothes lay on the single bed; serviceable clothes--heavy woolen tunics and hose, leather boots and hooded cloaks. Diesa took it all in in a heartbeat, before her gaze returned to the elf.
"I will be back in an hour," the elf said. "I expect you to bathe and dress before I return. And wash your hair. I am not fond of lice."
Diesa clenched her jaw, humiliation once more driving her tongue. "And I am not fond of being ordered about," she seethed.
The elf's cold gaze locked on her, and she brought her shields to bear, tensing, waiting for punishment. But it did not come. Instead, the elf smiled, though there was no warmth in it. "My name is Scanlon," he said, his gaze hard on her. "You will both address me as M'Lord or Sir." He turned toward the door. "One hour. Be ready." He pulled the door shut firmly behind him.
Diesa glanced at Kittellan. At least Scanlon's words had cleared up one question. Kittellan was as much a slave as she was. Her gaze traveled to the bath. "Will you go first or shall I?" She fought to keep the tremor from her voice.
Kittellan gestured at the tub. "Please, by all means, ladies first." He sounded as nervous as she felt.
"Your back, then," she said, and when he had turned, she quickly shed her slave tunic and slid into the water. She had not bathed for at least two weeks--eight days shackled like some animal and six days before that, wandering hopelessly through a land gone dead, destroyed in a fierce battle between opposing warlords. Everyone and everything she had known was gone, perished in the raging fires that had consumed her beloved forest.
Tears stung her eyes, and she let the water close over her head. Why was I allowed to live? she wailed to herself. It would have been far less painful to burn as the forest had burned, to offer herself up to the Gods and their will. Perhaps she still could. She had only to breathe now, beneath the water, and her life would end. It would be so simple. She closed her eyes, steeling herself against the panic of self-preservation. So simple.
Sudden pain flared through her scalp as Kittellan hauled her from the tub by her hair. "Are you mad?" he cried. She gasped and struggled free of him to collapse in a puddle of water on the floor. "Fool!" he spat and tossed a towel at her.
Diesa came to her feet, trembling with rage. She reached for her magic, magic that would send this human into spasms of agony, and found it blocked by Scanlon. Fury swelled in her, a growl escaped her lips, and she swung her fist with all the strength she had left. It caught Kittellan soundly on the cheek. He reeled, surprised and in obvious pain. His reaction was swift. He picked her up and threw her onto the bed. She rolled, expecting to feel his weight upon her. Instead, he peeled off his dirty clothes and plunged into the tub, sinking beneath the water, ignoring her completely.
Diesa watched in disbelief as he resurfaced and began to wash vigorously. Slowly she reclaimed her towel, dried and dressed, aware as she did so that Kittellan never once looked at her. With a scowl, she sank down on the wooden floor out of his sight, her back against the bed. She heard him leave the tub, and rummage about. Several moments later he rounded the bed, fully dressed and drying his hair. For the first time, Diesa really looked at him.
He was remarkably handsome. His blond hair was long and curly, framing a V-shaped face with a sharp, pointed chin, a full mouth, delicate nose, and wide, innocent blue eyes. Diesa felt homely by comparison. She with her slightly round face, blunt features, dark skin and pale green eyes, all offset by the black hair that spiraled in tight, wet ringlets to her waist; hair that seemed too thick and heavy for such a small frame.
"Scanlon left a brush," Kittellan said. "I suggest you use it."
Anger flared through her at his tone. He was no more than she, a slave, and she resented him ordering her around. Still, she rose and snatched the brush from the table. She watched Kittellan from the corner of her eyes, as she fought to draw the brush through her hair. His brush moved easily through his hair, tempering the curls into soft waves and bringing out a shine, while her hair seemed to have a will of its own, wrapping and tangling about the brush. She jerked against it, pulling fiercely, each tug of pain only increasing her anger.
"Here." Kittellan caught her hand and removed the brush with one easy movement.
"I can do it myself!" Diesa snapped.
"Be quiet and turn around!" he ordered. "Scanlon will be back any moment and we'd better be ready." He spun her around, quickly and expertly brushed out her hair and plaited it into one heavy braid, tying the end with a thin strip of leather he found on the table.
His touch was incredibly gentle and soothing and, in spite of her anger, Diesa relaxed. She was tired, so very tired. Her eyelids drooped and her shoulders sagged. All she could think of was collapsing on the bed for a good long sleep.
"No time for rest," Kittellan said, jolting her back to the fore. He set the brush down and turned to the tub. "We'd better get this water cleaned up."
Diesa looked at the puddle. It surprised her when Kittellan began mopping it up instead of simply ordering her to do so. Chewing thoughtfully on the inside of her cheek, she joined him. In moments the floor was dry, the towels hung over the back of a chair, the bed straightened and the dirty garments heaped in a pile. Diesa glanced at Kittellan. The large red spot on his cheek would be a hideous bruise by tomorrow. Remorse crept in, and Diesa winced.
"Kittellan," she murmured. "I'm...I'm sorry I hit you. I had no right to vent my anger on you."
He grimaced and opened his mouth as if to speak but at that moment the door opened and Scanlon stepped into the room. He had a large burlap bag in one hand, and a sword and leather scabbard in the other. His steely gray gaze swept over the room and the two before him. Slowly, silently, he closed the door and put his purchases on the table, his gaze never leaving Diesa.
Without looking at the boy, Scanlon addressed him. "What happened to your face?"
Kittellan answered steadily, calmly. "A fall getting into the tub, M'Lord."
Diesa caught her breath. The elf watched her a moment longer, then turned away. She shot a glance at Kittellan, but he ignored her.
"I have brought you something," Scanlon said, opening the bag. He dumped the contents onto the table. Rolled packs, blankets, waterskins, tin mugs and eating utensils tumbled out--two of each. In addition, there were medical supplies, a digging spade, and a fine dagger in a leather sheath. The latter was handed to Diesa, the sword to Kittellan.
"Prepare your packs and join me in the dining hall," Scanlon ordered. "Twenty minutes."
"Where are we going?" Diesa asked, looking over the items. Scanlon eyed her with raised eyebrow, and she glared back defiantly. She had not addressed him as M'Lord or Sir, nor did she intend to. She would not accept her position as slave and he could not make her.
::Can't I?:: he asked and the tone was so incredibly aloof that she actually flinched. ::We shall see.:: He studied her for a moment longer, then spun on his heel and strode from the room, closing the door behind him.
Diesa stared at the door for a long moment, puzzlement furrowing her brow. She had read something there, something in Scanlon's anger; as if he were questioning his own ability to bend her to his will. And if there was a hesitation on his part, that would be her advantage, small though it might be. She shook her head and turned to Kittellan. "Are you trying to get yourself punished? He knows what happened. He can read my mind."
Kittellan stared at her, obviously startled. "You could have said the truth."
"Aye, I could have. And brought his wrath down on me at once," she replied. Her voice softened. "I'm sure I'll pay later, Kittellan, but thank you."
He said nothing further about it but divided the articles on the table. They finished with the packs and Diesa drew the dagger from its sheath. It was a fine blade, well balanced and sharpened to a wicked edge. She looked at it thoughtfully. "He buys us as slaves, outfits us as brethren, and arms us as comrades." She brought her gaze up to Kittellan's face. "We'll be traveling, that's certain. But to where and for what purpose? What do you suppose our future holds?"
"I couldn't say," Kittellan returned. "But it may be a short one if we're late to supper."
Diesa sighed and followed him downstairs. Scanlon had already ordered. Large bowls of steaming vegetable stew waited, along with fresh bread still warm from the oven, butter and honey to spread, and some sort of custard-like dessert. A carafe of wine stood nearly full, only Scanlon's serving gone.
Diesa stared at the food in disbelief. She had never seen such a feast and couldn't believe Scanlon would order such for mere slaves. Her stomach reminded her audibly how long it had been since she had eaten anything at all, and she slid onto the bench next to Kittellan, her mouth already watering in anticipation.
"By your leave, M'Lord?" Kittellan asked politely.
Scanlon nodded and Kittellan attacked his soup, obviously just as famished as Diesa was. She hesitated, then drew a deep breath, and followed Kittellan's example. "By your leave, M'Lord?" she asked, although the words left a bitter taste in her mouth.
Instead of nodding, Scanlon studied her. ::The truth?:: Scanlon's voice came into her mind.
Diesa frowned, confused. It took her a moment to figure out what the elf wanted. She licked dry lips. "I hit him," she said.
Kittellan stopped in mid-bite, his gaze darting from Diesa to Scanlon and back. The elf shot him a glance and the boy warily resumed eating.
::Continue,:: Scanlon ordered Diesa.
::Aloud,:: Scanlon interrupted.
Diesa drew a deep breath, humiliation and fatigue driving her tongue, stilling any caution. "I tried to drown myself and he stopped me!" she snapped. "I didn't want him to!" Tears of rage leapt to her eyes and she forced them back. "And I will try again and again to take my life," she went on, her voice thick and shaky. "I should have died weeks ago. My own stubborn stupidity has kept me alive. But no more, Scanlon. You may own my body, invade my mind, but you'll not corner my soul. I will not be owned by you or anyone else!" Her tears spilled over, running down her cheeks to fall soundlessly on her tunic. She closed her eyes, trembling, but Scanlon's words brought them open again.
"Too late," he said quietly. "I do own you. You may eat."
Anger replaced her despair, and she brushed the tears from her face. "I seem to have lost my appetite, M'Lord," she seethed, unable to stop the sarcastic bite on the last word.
Anger flitted across the elf's face. "Then find it," he said curtly.
Diesa stared at him, but was no match for his cold glare. She snatched up the spoon and ate the stew without tasting it, then gulped two glasses of wine in rapid succession, feeling it go immediately to her head. She didn't care and would have downed a third but that Scanlon stopped her, his smooth, cool hand overlaying hers on the carafe. She felt a tingle shoot through her at the touch. Her breath rushed from her and she reeled dizzily, jerking her hand away.
"Kittellan," Scanlon said. "Take Diesa to your room. I will awaken you in the morning when it's time to go."
"Yes, M'Lord." Kittellan rose, pulled Diesa to her feet and half dragged, half carried her upstairs to their room where he lowered her onto the bed.
Diesa watched him through eyes blurry with drink. "And what now, Kittellan?" she murmured. "Scanlon bought me as much for you as for himself."
Kittellan grimaced. "Then he made a poor purchase."
Diesa sat up, the words stinging. Anger tried to take hold, met with the wine and turned into self-pity. "Am I that awful? That pathetic to behold?" She rose, stripped off her tunic and regarded her half-naked body in the mirror, the drink banishing any embarrassment. "Seventeen," she murmured. "Seventeen, and I look as though I've not seen my tenth year." She frowned at herself. "It's no wonder no one wanted me."
"The bidding sounded good to me," Kittellan replied, dropping into a chair before the fire. He looked at her steadily but his gaze was not on her body, only her face. "Are you indeed Crayoven?"
Diesa studied him for a long moment. "Would that please you?" she finally asked.
Kittellan shrugged. "It wouldn't matter, except that I would be more wary of where I chose to sleep."
Diesa laughed lightly, though it was without mirth. "So, the sexually deviant are not your type? No, I am not Crayoven. I am dryad. At least, partially."
"Ah, that's why Scanlon can read your thoughts then?"
Diesa nodded, returning to her self-appraisal. She could see Kittellan's reflection in the mirror beside hers. If Scanlon was perfect, Kittellan was next to it. She belonged to him, yet clearly he did not want her. Her self-pity grew to self-loathing and she spun, gained the bed and huddled under the heavy blankets, cursing her own conflicting emotions. Yet, she knew it would be her anger that would sustain her in the days ahead and she quietly drew it forth.